Even inland, the winds—which blew as fast as those inside a tornado—collapsed churches and gas stations, knocked 18-wheelers on their sides, and stripped dense woodland entirely of their greenery, leaving behind only clusters of huddled, naked trunks.
“Students in tropical meteorology classes are going to be talking about this storm for 20 years,” says Colin Zarzycki, a tropical-cyclone scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
From the moment it made landfall, Michael became one of the four strongest hurricanes in history to hit the continental United States, according to the weather historian Phil Klotzbach. Michael’s blinding wind speeds are outmatched only by the three Category 5 storms ever to strike the U.S. mainland: Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Hurricane Camille in 1969, and the Labor Day Storm of 1935. (While Hurricane Katrina achieved Category 5 strength in the Gulf of Mexico, it made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 3 storm.)
In fact, Hurricane Michael’s landfalling barometric pressure of 919 millibars was lower than Andrew’s reading of 922 millibars, making Michael the third-strongest U.S. hurricane on record as ranked by pressure. Michael is also the strongest hurricane ever to make landfall this late in the season.
This staggering intensity let Michael break other records. It remained an intact, fast-moving hurricane many hours after coming ashore. When its eye crossed the Florida-Georgia state line just after 6 p.m., it still unleashed Category 3 winds of 120 miles per hour, and it became the strongest hurricane to strike Georgia directly in a dozen decades.
A number of different factors let Michael stay so strong even as it penetrated more than 50 miles inland, Zarzycki told me. “The area where Michael made landfall, over the Florida Panhandle, tends to be a swampy, smooth region. It’s fairly moist, fairly flat, and it doesn’t disrupt the storm core,” he said.
Michael was also moving fast—much faster, for instance, than Hurricane Florence, which dawdled over the Carolina coast for days—so “even though it was decaying rapidly, it could get pretty far,” he added. It also benefitted from even, high-atmospheric winds that let the storm continue to pull energy into its core and up through its eye.
“It takes considerable time for the hurricane to expel its energy as it interacts with land,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center, in an email.
Though Michael had lost its hurricane-force winds, it remained a tropical storm more than 24 hours after making landfall. Feltgen said was not unusual for an intense hurricane: “Combined with the fact that Michael has been moving quickly, increasing its forward speed to more than 20 miles per hour, it’s been able to trek across a lot of real estate.”
Zarzycki agreed that Michael’s long-term survival as a tropical system was not the storm’s most notable trait. Instead, meteorologists will recall its shockingly fast intensification, he said. Starting around midday Tuesday and continuing up until the moment of landfall, the storm grew in intensity, ballooning from a Category 2 storm into a near-Category 5.
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